When they're open for business, farmers' markets keep retailers on their toes.
The markets, which consumers associate with produce fresh from the field, are spreading across the country. Federal and local government programs are increasingly promoting them in one way or another. When they're practically on a supermarket's doorstep, they can present real competition in the produce arena, retailers told SN.
"In season, at least for four months of the year here, they're serious competition because they're offering produce from local growers," said an official at a large supermarket chain in the Northeast. "Traditional supermarkets are emulating them in merchandising, with signs saying we buy some produce locally. They'll pop up in more places and they'll take more of the business as big supermarket chains get more alike and less personal."
The number of farmers' markets increased from 1,755 in 1994 to 3,700 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service figures. The numbers continue to grow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are more than 3,800 of the markets nationwide, USDA spokeswoman Joan Shaffer said.
The outdoor markets may capitalize on freshness and ripeness, but many no longer offer the attractive prices they once did.
"Freshness, at least the perception of it, is the attraction, and there's the entertainment, but I've heard consumers say they're disappointed in the prices," said Mona Doyle, president, Consumer Network, a Philadelphia-based consumer research group.
One retailer said he does not feel threatened by the markets.
"We have an Amish farmers' auction right near here and I go there and get some terrific buys. I've come away with a box of top-grade peppers for as little as $5," said Mike Grosch, produce manager at LaCrosse, Wis.-based Quillin's flagship store.
"Meanwhile, the farmers' markets are trying to get a premium price. My prices are below other retailers', too. Last summer when I was selling beautiful green peppers five for a buck, Wal-Mart up the block had theirs at 69 cents each."
Former retailer Dick Spezzano, now principal at Monrovia, Calif.-based Spezzano Consulting Services, sees the markets as a limited threat. "My sense is they've already attained 80% of their growth, and I don't see them increasing in frequency," Spezzano said. "I mean they're not going to go from one day a week to five. That day is taking six to 10 hours away from others things the grower or his representative has to be doing."